Video report by ITV News Science Editor Tom Clarke
The discovery of a new coronavirus variant in the UK, which was first detected in India, features two mutations that could be a cause for concern, an expert has said.
Public Health England (PHE) reported that 73 cases of the B.1.617 variant have been confirmed in England as well as four cases in Scotland.
Officials have designated it a "variant under investigation" (VUI) rather than a “variant of concern” (VOC), such as the Manaus (Brazil) or South African variants.
PHE said there is currently no evidence to suggest that disease from the newly identified variant is more serious than previous ones, nor is there current evidence to suggest vaccines are less likely to work against it.
It is understood that the cases detected in England are dispersed across different parts of the country.
Many are linked to international travel but investigations are under way.
Paul Hunter, professor in medicine at the University of East Anglia, said the variant featured two "escape mutations" – E484Q and L452R – that "are causing people to be concerned".
He added: "There’s laboratory evidence that both of these are escape mutations.
"Basically, applying what we know about other human coronaviruses would suggest that this is going to be even less controlled by vaccine.
"But we don’t know that for certain at the moment."
According to PHE, the variant “includes a number of mutations including E484Q, L452R, and P681R”.
Two of the mutations are in the spiky protein that the virus uses to fasten itself to cells, according to Dr Rakesh Mishra, the director of the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, one of the 10 research institutes sequencing the virus.
He added that these genetic tweaks could be of concern since they might help the virus spread more easily and escape the immune system.
But Health Ministry officials in India have cautioned against linking the variants with an ongoing surge in new infections.
Cases in India had been plummeting since September but spiked in February and on Thursday, more than 200,000 cases were recorded in a single day.
There have been 13.9 million confirmed cases and 172,000 deaths in the Asian nation.
The Health Ministry said in a statement that the new variant was found in 15% to 20% of the samples sequenced from Maharashtra state.
The state, which is home to India’s financial capital, has been worst hit by the recent surge and accounts for over 60% of all active cases in India.
It said “all appropriate public health interventions will be undertaken, including enhanced contact tracing” after its detection, with PHE and international partners monitoring the situation “closely”.
Despite its high number of Covid cases, India is not currently on the government’s “red list” for travel, which sees people who have been in those countries in the previous 10 days refused entry to the UK.
British or Irish nationals, or people with UK residency rights, are able to return from red list countries but must isolate in a quarantine hotel for 10 days.
Asked on Friday if India could be put on the red list, Downing Street said the countries on it are “under constant review”.
A No 10 spokesperson told a Westminster briefing: “We add and remove countries based on the latest scientific data and public health advice from a range of world-leading experts.
“We keep it under constant review and we won’t hesitate to introduce tougher restrictions and add countries if we think it is necessary.”
Boris Johnson has scaled down a planned trip to India due to its worsening Covid situation.
The Prime Minister was due to spend four days in the south Asian country at the end of the month but, following talks with Narendra Modi’s administration, the “bulk” of the meetings could be fitted into one day.
Prof Hunter said it is “not surprising” that the variant has come from India.
“If you think about where the main variants have arisen – South Africa, the UK, California, Brazil, and now India – all of these are countries that have really struggled to keep case numbers down.
“So it’s not surprising. India has got a huge pandemic, and therefore that’s where you’re going to be getting the variant.”
He added: “The big, big anxiety with this one is that it seems – and again this is still a little bit speculative because it hasn’t been confirmed – but… there are two mutations here that are causing people to be concerned.”
PHE said that mutations at the 484 spike protein have been associated with the Manaus and South African variants.
The E484K mutation is reported to result in weaker neutralisation by antibodies in lab experiments, but the E484Q mutation is different and still subject to investigation.
Viruses by their nature mutate often, with more than 18,000 mutations discovered over the course of the Covid-19 pandemic, the overwhelming majority of which have no effect on the behaviour of the virus.
PHE’s latest findings mean there are now seven VUIs and four VOCs being tracked by scientists in the UK.
In London, extra testing facilities were launched this week to help limit the spread of the South African coronavirus variant following a cluster of cases being discovered.
A total of 600 cases of the variant of concern have been detected so far in the UK, an increase of 56 in a week.
It is still too early for results from the surge testing in response to cases detected in London and Sandwell in the West Midlands to show up in PHE figures.
Steven Riley, professor of infectious disease dynamics at Imperial College London, speaking to the MRC Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis, said the London cluster is a “concern”.
But he added that earlier clusters of the same variant had been found before and “that hasn’t led to a rapid take-off”.
“So, even though it’s a different situation now with lockdown being eased, I think that’s a little bit reassuring,” he added.
He highlighted that the variant has been detected in Israel, which has a heavily vaccinated population, and it has not yet “risen to dominance or grown”.
“Although we have to watch it and be concerned, it’s not immediately apparent that it will be a large problem,” he added.
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